Don’t Visit Thailand Until You’ve Read This!

There are many differences between Thai and western culture. First and foremost, Thailand is a very modest country. This was one of the first lessons I learned before coming to Thailand. No packing my usual summer wardrobe of tank tops and mini skirts! Especially when going into temples, the dress code is pants or a skirt over the knee, and a top that covers the shoulders with no stomach showing. I can get away with shorts when I’m not visiting temples, but it’s important to dress smart when in public and also while swimming (no bikinis). With the exclusion of temples, Thai people will never tell you to cover up, but it is respectful to follow the cultural guidelines.

i-to-i Thailand interns together in front of a statue of the Buddha

Not only will a Thai person not tell you when your outfit is inappropriate, but they will never confront you. Thai people are extremely non-confrontational, and it is a bad idea to back them into a corner. During orientation for my program I learned that a Thai person will never show it when they are upset, so it is important not to push them into a situation where they lose face. This is most likely due to the fact that Thai people are raised to always show respect, and to care about the needs of others. They will therefore choose to remain kind and say “Mai Pen Rai” which translates to “never mind” or “it’s not important”. Thai people follow the philosophy of “Jai Yen” or “cool heart”, which means that even in stressful situations, they put others needs above their own and respond with a smile. It is possible for Thai people to have “Jai Rawn” or “hot heart”, but this is not the custom. During my time here I have seen both sides. The teachers and students I interact with show nothing but mutual respect towards each other, but I have also seen a few bus drivers loose their cool on passengers or traffic. Despite the few encounters I’ve had with a frustrated Thai person, I think we could all learn a lesson from their style of dealing with negative feelings or conflict. This is also not to say that you should take advantage of a Thai person’s good nature. It is important to be aware of the cultural norms and follow them as closely as possible.

i-to-i Thailand intern Jessi in front of a traditional temple

There are many daily rituals and occurrences that tourists must be aware of. First, Thai people constantly use the wai. A wai is a bow, and Thai people will always bow to you as a sign of respect. They do this by pressing their hands together as if they are praying and moving their head down. The height of the hands varies by the amount of respect the person wants to display. Elders, monks, and the King would get a higher hand placement. It is polite to return this gesture and to say “Sawadee” which is “hello” in Thai. I must also mention that while you may encounter monks and it is perfectly respectful to bow to them, it is forbidden to touch a monk. If you do accidentally touch a monk nothing will happen to you, but it will be very bad for the monk and his vows. Among monks, you will also encounter many Buddha statues. Buddha is a revered figure and it is illegal in Thailand to use Buddha as decoration or to defile Buddha. Do not ever touch or climb on a Buddha statue, and always be as respectful as possible. Lastly, Thai people believe that the head is the holiest place in the body, and the feet are the least holy. Therefore, never touch a Thai person on the head and never show a Thai person your feet or point with your feet. You also must be aware of restaurants and temples where shoes are not permitted. This may seem like a lot of rules, but I promise it starts to feel normal after a while.

i-to-i TEFL intern Jessi with a member of the long-neck Karen tribe in Thailand

The last Thai cultural norm I would like to touch on is my personal favorite. Thai people constantly say “sabai sabai” which translates to something like “relax, easygoing, happy, comfortable, etc.” This is how many Thai people live their life. I find this especially interesting because Thai people do not have many luxuries. Their happiness does not stem from physical possessions and material wealth. Rather, happiness comes from within them and with the bonds they create with their families, friends, and communities. “Sabai sabai” has definitely been impressed upon me, and it is something I will take home with me as I encounter the stress and fast-paced style of western living.

i-to-i intern Jessi in class with a fellow teacher and her students at school in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

 

Kanchanaburi, Thailand: an insider’s guide

I am falling in love with this city, and I want to give you a piece of it! I have compiled a list of tips for you based on my experiences so far. Hopefully you can use them someday if you’re ever able to visit. If not, you can live vicariously through me.

Backpacker’s Strip

If you’re traveling through Kanchanaburi, then you absolutely HAVE to stay on the backpacker strip (also known as foreigner’s road) in the heart of the city. There are many quaint and affordable guesthouses, as well as a variety of food and bars. On our first night there the westerners were craving pizza, so we stopped by Bell’s Pizzeria and it hit the spot. However, if you’re just passing through and want some good Thai food there are many restaurants you can try, including On’s Thai Issan or Nut’s Restaurant. I spent my first two weekends in Kanchanaburi town, and I stayed in two different guesthouses. Blue Star Guest House was absolutely beautiful and very affordable. You walk outside of your room and you are surrounded by nature.  However, I would not recommend this place if you are looking for a hot shower, Wi-Fi, and a spacious room. The accommodation is very basic and you also run the risk of some “friends” in your room. I found a bug in my blanket in the morning! Otherwise the experience was wonderful. The next weekend I stayed at Noble Night, which was only a little more expensive and very nice. There is a pool, more space in the room and bathroom, Wi-Fi, a hot shower, and a comfy bed. I would highly recommend Noble Night and would definitely go back again. Other recommended guesthouses are Sam’s guesthouse and Tara Bed & Breakfast.

i-to-i interns relaxing at Bells' Pizzeria in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Waterfalls

Kanchanaburi is known for its plethora of beautiful nature spots, and I can attest to this. By tuk-tuk or taxi, you can get to the Erawan waterfalls in about an hour. Sai Yok is also an option for waterfalls, but my travel group chose to go to Erawan. Be sure to bring some cash, the entrance fee is 300 baht (8.50 USD or 6.50 British Pounds). Also keep in mind that if you are going during Thailand’s hot season (March-May) there is a chance that the waterfalls will be dry, so check beforehand.  I had a blast at Erawan, but I definitely ran into some surprises that I was not prepared for. First off, dress appropriately. The Thai culture has a strict dress code and they do not allow bikinis or men without a shirt. I wore sandals expecting an easy walk, and I was absolutely not prepared for a rigorous hike. Wear good hiking shoes or you’ll be slipping and falling like me, oops! Another thing I was not prepared for was the fish in the water. Yes, real fish, and they’re not shy. Don’t get in the water unless you’re ready for a swarm of fish to swim up to you and nibble (gently) at your feet. It is also important to pack lightly if you’re going to hike all the way up to the 7th waterfall. The hike is an hour up and an hour down. Overall, Erawan was a beautiful experience, and I hope to go back again.

i-to-i TEFL interns sitting at Erawan falls in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

WW2 History

Kanchanaburi is also full of World War II History, including Death Railway and the River Kwai Bridge.  I recommend starting your day at the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre and then catching the train and on the Death Railway from Kanchanaburi, over the River Kwai Bridge, through the Wampo Viaduct, and all the way to Hellfire Pass. At the end of the train is Hellfire Pass where you can find the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. To give you a little backstory, during WWII Australians and English prisoners of war were captured by the Japanese and were forced to build the Death Railway, which the Japanese were hoping to use to get materials to Burma. It is a fascinating piece of history, and also offers some beautiful scenery if you go by train. My group stopped at the Krasae Cave instead of going all the way to Hellfire Pass on the train, and that was a really cool experience. There is a giant gold Buddha in the center of the cave that tourists often pray to for good luck. This is also a great place to get off and take some pictures of the railway and the river.

i-to-i interns in a tuk-tuk in Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Elephants World

This past weekend I visited Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, which was my favorite experience yet. Elephants World is a sanctuary for retired elephants, and it is a safe place for the elephants. Their motto is “Where we work for the elephants, and the elephants not for us”. They are a non-profit, and the only place I would recommend in Kanchanaburi for interacting with elephants. You can feed them, bathe them, and watch them give themselves mud baths and swim. The staff is also friendly and really cares about the animals. I highly recommend Elephants World!

Elephants at Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, Thailand